Countdown to Pickoff
CHICAGO — The drama in the NFL’s 80th draft, which starts tonight outside New York City for the first time since 1963, commences with the second pick, belonging as the day dawns to Tennessee.
And Wednesday night, evidence mounted that the Tennessee pick was in play. As I reported Monday, the Titans could move the pick for a huge offer, and there are three teams that could put one together: Philadelphia, Cleveland and San Diego.
But only Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who has a major thing for Mariota (as Oregon’s head coach, Kelly oversaw the recruitment of Mariota and his development as a great college quarterback), could realistically put together a package strong enough to acquire Mariota.
We’ll see today how far Kelly is willing to go to reunite with him. I believe Kelly will make a serious effort to acquire Mariota in the hours before the draft begins at 8 p.m. ET.
What a stunning turn of events it would be if the Eagles were to get him. Seven weeks ago Kelly traded starting quarterback Nick Foles to St. Louis for a package that included quarterback Sam Bradford. To get the second pick in the draft, the Eagles would have to do one of two things: ship Bradford to Tennessee as part of the deal, or ship Bradford to Cleveland to get a first-round pick, which Kelly would then flip to Tennessee as part of a deal for Mariota. It would take two first-round picks plus something significant, most likely, to get the Oregon passer. Would the Eagles be willing to include their 2016 first-round pick? Or more?
More to the point: For Tennessee, would three first-round picks—none likely to be in the top 10 of the 2015 or 2016 drafts—be worth passing on Mariota? Scouts have punched holes in Mariota for months now, but he’s clearly a promising prospect with a crystal-clear reputation, great athleticism and very good accuracy. The Titans need a long-term quarterback. Three first-round picks over the next two drafts absolutely do not guarantee getting one.
That is the agonizing decision Tennessee GM Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt will be going through today. The Titans can sit tight and pick Mariota, following the presumptive pick of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston by the Bucs. I believe Tennessee will, unless it's bowled over by an offer in the hours before the draft. The Eagles have the most ammo, because they have Bradford. The Chargers would have to include veteran quarterback Philip Rivers in a trade, and are unwilling to do so. The Browns would have to deal more than their two first-round picks this year for Mariota—and they’re unwilling to do that as well.
But there is this X factor, not to complicate this too much: One NFL source in Chicago late Wednesday night told me Cleveland believes it has a good chance before the draft to deal for Bradford. So there’s that. If we’ve learned nothing about the draft over the years, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected. Such as, there’s a real chance Mariota could end up on a team other than the Titans by nightfall today.
After all the conjecture, what is most likely to happen? The most logical scenario is for Tennessee to pass on the offers and pick Mariota. He’s a really good prospect. Plus, there are no Andrew Lucks in next year's draft. And Zach Mettenberger, Tennessee’s sixth-round pick in 2014 and the current top quarterback on the Titans depth chart, is no lock to be a long-term starter.
In addition, Kelly is either a master smokescreener or a deliberate misleader. When the Eagles made the Bradford trade in March, Kelly was asked about the perception that he would eventually move whatever he had to move to draft Mariota. “Let’s dispel that right now,’’ Kelly said. “I think Marcus is the best quarterback in the draft, but we’ll never mortgage our future.” Then, asked if he could turn around and trade Bradford in a deal for Mariota, he said, “We didn't bring Sam in here to be a [trading] chip.”
One last point: As the Eagles and Titans deliberate today, each will have the chance to show a franchise’s hand. If Tennessee picks Mariota, you can be sure Whisenhunt is being genuine—he really likes Mariota, and thinks he can be the kind of pocket passer he values in a quarterback. If Philadelphia trades for the pick, you’ll know Kelly never lost his feeling that Mariota was the best run/pass quarterback to operate his fast-paced offensive system.
I’ve been wrong far, far more often than I’ve been right in my draft history. But I think the Titans are more likely to take Mariota than to trade him, because the options for them at quarterback are just not good enough for a team looking toward the future. We’ll all know for sure tonight.
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Another interesting thing I'm hearing is about the handful of teams scheduled to pick early in the second round calling teams late in the first. The early-second teams to make sure they’re not shut out of positions that could see a heavy run on players as tonight’s first round winds down.
Two players seems to be at the center of interest: Pitt tackle T.J. Clemmings, who might be at the bottom of the first-year-starter tackle market, and rising-star wideout Nelson Agholor of USC, seen as an immediate contributor or starter to a contending team (maybe Carolina at 25 or New England at 32). Clemmings is the tackle for some teams who straddle the line between instant help and project, while Agholor is fascinating because he can play in the slot, outside and as a returner.
I could see Tennessee (at 33), Oakland (35), the Jets (37) and Jacksonville (36) being aggressive for a wideout if they didn't land one earlier in the first round. I could see Tampa Bay (34) trying to get up for Clemmings.
As for teams that could move down: Carolina (25), Baltimore (26), Indianapolis (29) and particularly New England (32) would be logical candidates.
Also happening late Wednesday night:
• Shane Ray is still drawing first-round interest and forcing teams to think very hard about picking him. Even after his citation for erratic driving and marijuana possession at 6 a.m. Monday in Missouri, at least one team in the top 10 was doing significant work on him on Wednesday. Not to say Ray, the pass-rusher from Missouri, won’t go on a deep slide, but NFL teams I communicated with Wednesday seem heartened by the fact that he’s owning his dumb decision. Question is: Would they be comfortable taking a player in the first round who could enter the league being randomly tested for street drugs?
• Melvin Gordon to the Browns at 19? Now there’s a rumor I definitely buy. The Browns are desperate for offense and are unsure whether they’ll be able to get much of a passing game going early in 2015. Gordon, particularly with his experience running in lousy Midwestern weather, would be the kind of chains-mover Mike Pettine would be drawn.
• Washington and the Jets, at 5 and 6, “are the linchpins of the draft,” said one club official handling trade conversations for his team. “Both teams have new GMs who want to trade down, and both teams are being very quiet about their intentions.” So there’s that.
• DeVante Parker to the Dolphins at 14? Miami would certainly consider that strongly if he’s there. Could be that Todd Gurley, my pick for the Dolphins two days ago, isn’t certain enough for Miami to commit to—though a garden-variety ACL shouldn’t be enough to scare a team away from the best back in this or the past several drafts.
• On Dante Fowler: I put the Falcons jumping up from 8 to 5 in the first round to get him, trading with Washington. I can’t see Washington passing on him now. Too afraid the Jets could trade out to a pass-rush needy team at 6, and then Chicago picking a pass-rusher at 7. Washington GM Scot McCloughan doesn’t want to be stuck without a good rush option when he selects.
• Ereck Flowers alert: There’s a love-fest out there with Flowers, the Miami left tackle. “He will not fail,” said one club official of a team in pursuit of the feisty Flowers. “He is all ball. Don’t know if he’ll make many Pro Bowls, but he will play at a good level for years. To me, he’s a sure thing.”
• Bruce Arians just swooned. Arizona badly wants a tackle, and Flowers has the kind of football attitude and nasty streak in him that would be a perfect match for the Cards. But he won’t last until 24.
• Good for La’el Collins that he left Chicago, where he’d come as one of the players to promote the draft, and returned to Louisiana to try to clear his name after the murder of a former girlfriend. Where a player is picked in the NFL draft is ridiculously trivial compared to a woman’s life. The reality is, even if the Baton Rouge, La., police are not viewing Collins as a suspect in the murder of Brittany Mills, it’s going to be tough for a team to pick Collins in the first round with this hanging over his head. Collins certainly will try to get police to interview him and issue some sort of decree before the draft.
• All quiet in the middle of the round, at least with two teams I spoke with. “We need the phone to ring,” said one GM who would like to move down.
• Marcus Peters will be a strong candidate for Kansas City at 18. Coach Andy Reid visited the player who some call the best cornerback in the draft this week in his hometown of Oakland. When you've got Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr in your division—for this year at least—it's probably smart to invest in fast, physical cornerbacks.
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